INDIANAPOLIS — Peyton Manning spent so many days trying to block out all of his feelings, ignore all of the outside chatter that filled the newspaper pages and Twitter feeds and radio waves, and pretend that somehow, he could walk into Lucas Oil Stadium like it was just any other stadium, on any other Sunday.
But for 90 seconds just before kickoff Sunday night, the roar of the crowd was too loud to ignore. Manning removed his helmet, raised his right hand to wave, and slowly turned to acknowledge the fans in every corner of this stadium that he used to call home.
"It's something I'll always remember, and I'm very grateful for that," Manning said.
The next 60 minutes of the Colts' 39-33 win showed that however much the fans of this city might still revere Manning, Indianapolis has moved on.
For much of the night, Andrew Luck was the better quarterback, and the Colts were certainly the better team as they handed the Broncos and Manning their first loss of the season, their first regular-season loss since Oct. 7, 2012 — a streak of 19 consecutive games.
"Andrew's a stud," Indianapolis safety Antoine Bethea said. "I don't think he gets enough credit for what he can do on the football field, the way he leads this offense. What he does for this team, it's huge. On this stage, he handled it well. It's his team now."
This certainly was a night for nostalgia, and time for some closure for fans who never got a real chance to say goodbye to Manning before the series of neck surgeries that sidelined him in 2011 and his subsequent release in March 2012. Lucas Oil Stadium was full of folks in No. 18 jerseys, many of them Colts blue, others in Broncos orange, and plenty of others in half-and-half jerseys made especially for this occasion.
Once it was done, Manning admitted the lead-up to this game had been draining. He said he spoke with Colts owner Jim Irsay late in the week, but not in person here in Indianapolis, and said he could "move past" any hurt feelings from comments Irsay made last week to USA TODAY Sports that read as critical of some of Manning's accomplishments with the Colts.
"I felt a little tired coming into this week. I'm kind of, in some ways, relieved this game is over," Manning said.
The hearty welcome he received here will stick with Manning as he returns to Denver, his new home, but so will the fact that he played his worst game of the season. He threw an interception, his third of the season, and was sacked four times, including a critical sack-strip safety early in the second quarter that proved to be the turning point of the game.
Longtime teammate Robert Mathis, who was never allowed to touch Manning in practice, blew past Denver left tackle Chris Clark to wallop Manning with a "good hit, a healthy one," Manning said. The ball tumbled out of Manning's hand and bounced into the end zone, where defensive end Erik Walden recovered it just out of bounds.
Luck led the Colts on a touchdown drive on the ensuing possession, and the Colts never trailed again.
Denver failed to pick up a first down on four of its next five possessions, including three straight drives to open the second half in which Manning especially struggled. He missed receivers short, and long, and high, and threw a few passes that could only be described as "ducks."
Asked after the game if the Mathis hit affected his arm strength, Manning laughed.
"I throw a lot of wobbly passes. A lot of wobbly touchdowns, too," Manning said.
Indeed, his fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas wobbled its way to the end zone, but it still got there — part of what plenty of folks, including some Colts players, thought might be another magic moment from Manning.
"Anytime he has the ball in his hands with time on the clock, you're worried," McAfee said.
But Luck, and further Broncos miscues, assured that wouldn't happen.
Luck, who threw three touchdown passes and ran for another score in the first three quarters, led the Colts on two field-goal drives in the fourth quarter to keep Manning at bay. Manning's interception and running back Ronnie Hillman's fumble near the goal line ended two other scoring chances.
The visitor's locker room, a place Manning had never really been before, was nearly silent after the game. Broncos players were frustrated after a sloppy game, yet also disappointed they couldn't have done better for their quarterback.
Manning never made a big deal about the homecoming to them last week, but he didn't have to. His teammates knew.
"Peyton has been a great teammate. I think I can speak for all of us. He's done some great things for Denver and the Denver Broncos football team," linebacker Von Miller said. "You know, it hurts. I really wanted to go out there and get this one for him. The type of guy he is, I know he wanted the same thing."